by REBECCA, February 18, 2013
I’ve called a few times for a new sub-genre: oceanic gothic! I think of oceanic gothic as a sub-genre that takes on all the darker or more overwhelming aspects of deep water. Sure the ocean can be a sun-soaked paradise of surfing and Mai Tais. But, more interestingly to me, the ocean is a prime example of the sublime—something that makes us aware of our tininess, our insignificance, our contingency in the face of its vastness. Something so overwhelmingly, incalculably wide, deep, and teeming that we feel our very sense of identity blown open in the face of it.
And that overwhelming sense of the sublime is one of the mainstays of gothic literature: the twisting halls of the crumbling gothic castle that you feel like you could get lost in forever, the inhuman strength of monster against which you can never win, the vast unknowability of the spirit world, the endless immortality of the creature that has seen and experienced more than you ever can, and more. But while many a classic gothic novel has been set in a crumbling castle or a wind-swept moor, and many a gothic update has been set in a crumbling boarding school or wind-swept Forks, Washington, historically, the ocean hasn’t seen much gothic action, if you will, and I think that’s a real missed opportunity. After all, there’s something doubly intriguing about a gothic setting can also be so bright and shiny (surfing, Mai Tais). Then, when the sun sets, or even when you’re the only one on the beach or in the water, it can turn so suddenly sinister.
So, here is a provisional list of some YA oceanic gothics—I’m sure there are more that we could add to the list, so be sure to tell me in the comments!
Teeth is an oceanic gothic winner—bonus points for having a cover that is the perfect combination of oceanic (fish scales) and gothic (a heart made out of fishhooks)! It is the story of an isolated island where people go as a last resort because its fish are rumored to be magically restorative to people who are dying. Our protag, Rudy, moves there with his parents and little brother who has cystic fibrosis. Once there, dark secrets of the island and its magic fish (and a fishboy) are revealed. The descriptions are gorgeous:
“At night the ocean is so loud and so close that I lie awake, sure it’s going to beat against the house’s supports until we all crumble onto the rocks and break into pieces. Our house is creaky, gray, weather stained. It’s probably held a dozen desperate families who found their cure and left before we’d even heard about this island. We are a groan away from a watery death, and we’ll all drown without even waking up, because we’re so used to sleeping through unrelenting noise.”
The Dead-Tossed Waves is the sequel to The Forest of Hands and Teeth (review HERE). Gabry lives between a forest and the ocean, both of which are teeming with the dead. I mean, there’s really nothing more oceanically gothic than an ocean swarming with zombies, right?
“And there’s no one waiting for me, no one who knows me. No one to share my life and experiences with. It’s me and the ocean, the tides and the lighthouse and wave after wave folding time to the shore.”
Also, The Dead-Tossed Waves is a legitimately good sequel—not too similar to the first, but not too far removed either. It’s really a great setting.
Two by Kirsty Eagar:
I haven’t read either of these books by Australian YA author Kirsty Eagar, but it seems very clear to me that she could be the very maven of oceanic gothic. From Goodreads:
“He looked to the sky, praying for rain, a downpour, some sign from the heavens that he should refuse the abomination contained in that flask. But all he saw was the bloated white face of the moon smiling down on him . . . And the sky around it was cold and clear and black. They made their circle of blood. And only the moon witnessed the slaughter that followed.
For Jamie Mackie, summer holidays in the coastal town of Rocky Head mean surfing, making money, and good times at the local music festival. But this year, vampires are on the festival’s line-up . . . fulfilling a pact made on the wreck of the Batavia, four hundred years ago. If their plans succeed, nobody in Rocky Head will survive to see out the new year.”
This one, in particular, appeals to me. From Goodreads: “Imagine there is someone you like so much that just thinking about them leaves you desperate and reckless. You crave them in a way that’s not rational, not right, and you’re becoming somebody you don’t recognise, and certainly don’t respect, but you don’t even care. And this person you like is unattainable. Except for one thing . . . He lives downstairs.
Abbie has three obsessions. Art. The ocean. And Kane. But since Kane’s been back, he’s changed. There’s a darkness shadowing him that only Abbie can see. And it wants her in its world.” Gaaaahhh! Yes, please.
The Scorpio Races is one of my favorite novels of the last few years (check out my review HERE for my feelings about the book as well as the story of how it caused me to cry audibly on an airplane). It’s also a different kind of oceanic gothic—it’s less on the creepy or sublime side of things and more a dark, intrinsically somber view of island life.
As have mentioned elsewhere, The Scorpio Races is a book that features the sea in all its many permutations: sublime, cradling, dangerous, alien, cleansing. Every November, on the shores of Thisby Island, men race the wild horses that rise up from the toiling waters—only one man may win, but many may die, bloodied and broken by their mounts, or dragged under the water with them, unable to resist their otherworldly call. Yeeeeeeessss!
Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama
Monstrous Beauty is on my to-read list for sure, and it seems pretty clear that it can be filed under oceanic gothic, right? From Goodreads: “Fierce, seductive mermaid Syrenka falls in love with Ezra, a young naturalist. When she abandons her life underwater for a chance at happiness on land, she is unaware that this decision comes with horrific and deadly consequences.
Almost one hundred forty years later, seventeen-year-old Hester meets a mysterious stranger named Ezra and feels overwhelmingly, inexplicably drawn to him. For generations, love has resulted in death for the women in her family. Is it an undiagnosed genetic defect . . . or a curse? With Ezra’s help, Hester investigates her family’s strange, sad history. The answers she seeks are waiting in the graveyard, the crypt, and at the bottom of the ocean—but powerful forces will do anything to keep her from uncovering her connection to Syrenka and to the tragedy of so long ago.”
Need more proof? There are underwater doll graveyards!
Well, friends, what oceanic gothic YA novels am I missing? Tell me in the comments!